Chapter 3 - Festival
Catriona stopped just short of her destination, looking out at the balcony which sat over the palace courtyard. She took a deep breath attempting to act normal despite the mad dash she had just made for the ceremony. She was still a little winded, but if anyone asked, then no, she hadn't crept in through an open window and stumbled through a study in the dark. No, she certainly wouldn't have cracked the study door, and waited for the hallway to be empty so that she could waltz out as if nothing had been amiss. She had been here all along.
Tucking one of her curls behind a delicate pointed ear, she walked wordlessly onto the balcony where her brother, the king, sat front and center. The courtyard below bustled with activity already. There were two other less extravagant, throne-like seats on either side of the king. Catriona took the one to the right, hoping that maybe things were running behind and he hadn't quite noticed her absence.
"So you've finally decided to show." Her brother stated coolly without looking at her.
Catriona nearly flinched at the bite in his tone. To others he may have seemed calm, but she could practically feel the frost. She offered him a sheepish smile "Yes... I um... I'm sorry I'm late, Cyran."
Her apology was met with silence. She fidgeted in her seat, looking to the ground in front of her for a moment. It was her own fault, she shouldn't have taken a detour. Maybe she should have even shown up early, but it was too late for that now.
Catriona's gaze traveled to the seat on the other side of Cyran. It sat empty. She had been late, but it looked as though she wasn't the only one. Her eyebrows furrowed, worried now.
She didn't really want to ask. Cyran was already in an awful mood, but she had to know. "Where's Levana?"
Cyran's answer was to the point. "I've received word from her servants that she does not wish to join."
"Oh…" Catriona's heart sank. "Is she not feeling well?"
It seemed odd even to Catriona that she would want for this to be the case. She shouldn't hope that her younger sister was sick, but it would have more than justified missing the ceremony. At least it would have been a reason that Cyran could accept and their already strained relationship wouldn't get worse.
Cyran shook his head, letting out a slight huff. "You know how she is now." He stated. He still hadn't glanced her way, but Catriona could sense the anger boiling under his cool appearance. "Mother and Father would have wanted us to stand together for our people, but she cares nothing about this family anymore."
"That's not true," Catriona argued, "I'm sure she has good reason -"
"It doesn't matter." Cyran cut in curtly.
Catriona felt the sting of tears as she fought the urge to cry. She averted her gaze elsewhere, trying her hardest not to let the distress show. Not here, not in front of everyone. What an embarrassment that would be. Cyran may have gotten skilled at hiding his emotions from his face, but Catriona still struggled not to wear her heart on her sleeve.
The passing of the former King and Queen had been hard on all of the royal children. Catriona knew the three of them should have pulled together. It was what their parents would have wanted, and expected for them.
However, things had quickly spiraled in the opposite direction. The three of them seemed to be drifting further apart every day. It was this fact of life now that made these events so frustrating and unpleasant to attend. Cyran had grown cold, Levana had nearly completely withdrawn, and Catriona couldn't have felt more alone. She remained lost in thought as the horns sounded for the second time, prompting a hush from the crowd in the courtyard.
Cyran began the ceremonies as required of the royals every year. He stood at the front of the balcony in plain view, holding a fist-sized crystal. Its many facets glittered with any movement "We gather here today, to pay homage to our great protector, King Airell, who, on this day, gave his life to protect this great kingdom." He said loudly, addressing the crowd.
Catriona finally looked up from her lap, quickly finding a face that she recognized. Her fiance gave her a smile and she smiled back, sitting a little straighter. Eamon must have made sure to be as close as he could, perched where she could see him. She barely heard the rest of her brother's speech, it wasn't important, it never changed much anyway.
"To another bountiful spring!" Cyran concluded, the crystal in his hand glowed and lifted into the air. It flashed a light that seemed to bounce around the courtyard to more crystals, passing the glow and creating a light show in the sky over the crowd. With that, the festivities officially commenced.
Lady Regalia stood near an ornate staircase, as if she had come down from the balcony herself. She had a larger than life presence, as if she thought herself just as important as the royal family themselves. Her raven hair was thick and full, styled in a complicated updo and dotted with jewels. She hadn't even spared her wings attention. They too were dripping in jewelry fashioned for them. Red teardrop jewels dangled among her black feathers.
Her painted lips curved into a smile as she gossiped with a small gaggle of noblewomen. "And I said, 'do you have any idea who you are speaking to?'" She said loudly.
"Excuse me... Milady." a voice said from behind her.
Whoever this was certainly couldn't be speaking to her. Anyone knew better than to interrupt, especially any of the servants. She grimaced as the voice called her again, clearly irritated. She sent a sideways glance to the source of her annoyance to see a guard.
"Milady, I may have found something of yours." the guard said, more insistently this time.
Regalia smiled tightly to her companions. "Go on, I'll catch up." she said, watching as the others spread wings and took off to other parts of the courtyard. She then turned her attention back to the guard, the smile gone without a trace. "What is it?" She demanded. Her face showed faint creases that she had tried to hide with a light layer of powder, her scowl made these lines more pronounced.
The guard bowed to her. "I apologise for the interruption." he said. As he bowed a thin braid of blonde hair fell over his shoulder. The rest of his hair was short and even a little messy and his wings weren't of a pure color, they were the earthy colors of a hawk. He seemed a little young to be a palace guard, on the small side even. When he straightened she realized that he wasn't even quite eye level with her. "I just couldn't help but notice that you dropped something."
Regalia's eyebrows went up, as did her interest. "Dropped something?" she echoed.
"Yes, just a moment ago." The guard replied.
"That's not possible." she scoffed. Even so, she made a mental checklist of every valuable on her person. Everything was secure. Wasn't it?
The guard looked up to her from his coat pocket. He had been searching it but upon hearing her response he faltered. "Oh. Alright then, perhaps this belongs to someone else." He held a jewel, a ruby, cut in a dazzling, faceted tear-drop. "Again, I'm sorry for interrupting, I shall find the rightful owner."
Regalia went a bit wide eyed, recognizing the jewel. The guard didn't give her time to speak, he had already turned, beginning off into the crowd. "Wait!" She shouted after him.
The guard didn't seem to hear her. Before she could catch up to him, he vanished into the crowd. That was definitely her gem! How did he find it? Where had she been careless enough to drop it? She shoved her way through the crowd, attempting to give chase. Where was that little runt?
In her frustration Regalia failed to avoid a collision as someone wandered into her path. She had run into yet another of the palace guards. Literally. The guard stumbled backwards as Regalia caused both of them to lose their balance.
"Woah!" The guard exclaimed, doing his best to steady himself with an over-dressed noblewoman practically clinging to him in a clumsy effort to save herself. He quickly helped her to regain her footing, keeping them both from falling across the stone floor beneath them. "Are you alright Milady?"
Regalia scanned the crowd to make sure no one saw her stumble. Such a lack of grace, this was embarrassing. Finally she addressed the guard. "Yes, I'm... I'm fine thank you." She said. This wasn't the same guard Regalia was looking for, this one was much taller and not quite so boyish in appearance.
Her cheeks flushed red, visible even under her veil of fancy cosmetics. It had taken her perhaps a moment too long to realize that she still hung onto the guard for balance. She quickly released him, smoothing her dress and trying to regain her composure.
The guard gave her his most dashing and reassuring smile. "Good, good." He replied, "I hope you enjoy the rest of your night. Save the falling for later, after a few good drinks, eh? I promise I'll still be here to catch you." He winked.
Regalia blushed furiously and turned to hurry off without saying another word. In all honesty, she wasn't sure how to respond. He was lucky she found him charming. She disappeared hastily into the crowd. No time to get distracted, that little runt still had something of hers!
The guard watched her leave, his expression confused. "Was it something I said?"
"So, did you get it?" Aiden questioned as Niam caught up to him. It had taken a few moments but they had finally continued their "patrol" of the courtyard perimeter.
Niam grinned confidently. "Of course I did." he replied, flashing a small royal purple coin purse. It had been tucked away in his coat. He returned it to its hiding place. "When did you snatch that ruby?" he questioned, sounding impressed.
"That's for me to know." Aiden replied with a smirk. "Now let's get the hell out of here before-" He suddenly stopped talking, the color draining from his face.
A distinguished older man in military dress stood in their path. He didn't seem to be aware of them as of yet, but if they were to continue in that direction he would notice them for sure. He had a sword at his side, even though he didn't wear armor. He wasn't working this event, but he was still the captain of the guard.
Aiden took hold of Niam's sleeve, pulling him rather harshly in the opposite direction. "Shi- It's Captain Bevan, turn around." He said in a hushed tone.
Niam muttered a curse as he complied. "You don't think he saw us do you?"
"No, I don't think so." Aiden said, hurrying to backtrack. "I know another way out. Just keep moving and stay alert."
The pair rushed along a convoluted path, avoiding everyone they could on the way to a set of gates, considerably smaller than the front gates of the courtyard. It wouldn't matter if the two were to cut the act a little short now. They had what they came for.
The music of the festival faded, drifting through the air lightly on the breeze now. Outside the courtyard walls, things were eerily silent. Of course, everyone that was anyone attended the festival. The sky was alight with stars, easily visible without all the torches of the courtyard to lessen the view.
This was it. In just a few moments they would be far enough away that no one would notice them take off. They would fly just far enough out to take a dive, swooping into the swirling clouds of the cloud line and vanishing into the lower levels of the city. Mission accomplished. No one would be the wiser.
"Men." A voice said sternly from behind them. It echoed slightly from the large stone wall of the palace. It was Bevan. "I don't believe this is part of your patrol route. What are you doing here?"
Aiden felt his stomach churn uneasily, threatening to make him feel sick. The last thing he had wanted was a confrontation with the Captain, but he had known that the possibility existed. He froze, Niam stopping beside him. What now? Aiden could usually think of something, anything to get out of a sticky situation, but this time he couldn't get his thoughts to organize.
"Ahhh... we uh, we were just putting in a little extra work uh, Captain Bevan Sir. Can't be too careful y-you know?" Niam stammered without turning around.
Aiden visibly winced, shooting Niam a sideways glance. Niam just looked back at him helplessly as if to ask, "well what was I supposed to do?"
"Aiden. That is you isn't it?" Bevan demanded.
Aiden's spine went rigid at the sound of his name, but he didn't respond. Instead he grabbed Niam by the arm, shoving his friend in front of him. "Go!" He shouted, his wings spread. They had to act now or there wouldn't be another chance.
A very frazzled Niam hesitated, but opened his wings, taking off with Aiden not far behind him. They were both airborne when a sudden blast of sound caught Niam's attention, causing him to stop in his tracks. "Hey! Hey, stop!"
Aiden nearly ran into him. His heart pounded and his thoughts raced so frantically in his head that he hadn't even noticed. "What are you doing?" He yelled, frustrated. "Keep going or -"
"Look!" Niam pointed in the direction of a large plume of smoke. It came from a guard tower on the outside wall of the city. Orange flames flared from it, licking and nearly engulfing the roof.
Aiden finally stopped in mid air, staring in disbelief. His wings kept a rhythm to keep him from falling. That horn that they had heard before, it was a warning. It took a moment for it to occur to him, he had never heard it before now. The city was under attack?
Captain Bevan rushed them, flying into their path with large eagle-like wings. He drew the sword from his belt, holding it at the ready. "This is going too far! I'm not sure exactly why you are here, but-"
"Wait! You think that has to do with us?" Niam interjected.
Bevan sneered at him "You obviously had some kind of plan."
"This isn't part of it, I swear." Aiden insisted. It wasn't like Bevan had any reason to trust him at the moment but he hoped he would listen. He didn't have a good feeling about this. "Something isn't right."
The tree tops moved in a strange way, swaying even in the absence of wind strong enough to move them. Distracted, Aiden could barely hear Bevan calling for the guards, the real ones. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as the movement got closer and he could sense some kind of presence. Suddenly a large shadow erupted from the trees, charging at Bevan from behind and throwing leaves and debris everywhere.
"Look out!" Aiden shouted.
Bevan whirled to face whatever came his way, alerted by the sudden crashing of the tree branches. He went wide eyed with shock. The creature had closed in on him fast.
Aiden lunged forward, grabbing one of the Captain's wings and folding his own. He pulled them both into a free fall just in time for the creature to miss them. The large shadow sailed over them in a blur just as Aiden and Bevan crashed into the bushes below them.
Author's note: Hey! Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying it! Comments and critique are welcome, I am determined to continually improve just as much as I'm determined to tell a good story!
On a side note: I think I'm going to stop naming chapters. I'm not very good at it and it doesn't really serve much purpose.